Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dissident Meritocracies

Lara Setrakian considers Husni Mubarak's holding onto power in the Egyptian government to the decision last year of Muhammad Mehdi Akef to step down as leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to ask whether Islamist organizations are better able to recruit talent:
"In 2009 the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef voluntarily stepped aside -- the first time a top leader in the movement had voluntarily resigned before reaching death's door. His message, as Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment describes it, was that ‘we old guys need to step aside -- I'm going to set an example.' This month Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Akef's counterpart in the ruling establishment, hinted he would run for a third term in office next year, extending his three decade rule.

"Akef's resignation was the high note in a pitch that Islamist groups have repeatedly made: that they are more internally democratic and dynamic than their secular counterparts. It's a cultivated image that glosses over a deeply flawed system, one that can be just as autocratic and hostile to new ideas. But it is giving Islamist groups a competitive edge, especially in attracting and retaining a new generation of talented members...

"In terms of real meritocracy, Islamists political movements have many of the same deficiencies as the secular establishment: they are largely autocratic, manipulated through patronage and often intolerant of dissent. 'There's still a complaint that the younger generation don't feel they have a chance,' said Carnegie's Michele Dunne. '‘[It can be] the leader for life phenomenon, undemocratic internal procedures, gerentocracies with old men holding onto their seats forever.'

"Yet Islamists maintain a perceived meritocracy, along with a real opportunity to participate at the low- and mid-level. That gives them a strategic advantage in attracting and retaining many of the region's brightest and most dedicated minds. Having that human capital makes them better equipped and more resilient as the political forces of the Arab world collide."

The only evidence in favor of this idea is Setrakian's conversation with a young Egyptian professional. Without more, I'm dubious this is actually true. In particular, I can see lots of young people questioning whether rising in that organization is ultimately worth it. At most, I can see it being more attractive for aspiring political activists than established opposition parties such as the Waqf which are just as prone to cronyism as the ruling NDP. On the flip side, however, I'm not sure the NDP even wants to recruit that kind of new activist, as opposed to continuing to run and profit on a developmentalist economic and social agenda.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's problems with this argument. First Akef's motive may have been embarrassing Mubarak, but it was also driven by the fact that he was not really in control of the MB — the current guide, Badie, had more power.

Then Islamist meritocracy is often not so much about talent as about rewarding sacrifice. And the NDP too rewards organizational talent.

There's a bigger point the researcher misses. The frustration by youth (the biggest segment of Egypt's population) about upward mobility and the domination of older people is widespread throughout society. It's present in the MB and in the regime. You can even see Gamal's rise as an expression of wanting to open the NDP to youth and finally dislodge the old dinosaurs. In terms of new faces at the top, in fact, the NDP has seen more changes in the last 10 years than the MB. And some of it is meritocratic.

5:13 AM  

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